It’s getting down to that time of year for prep football teams. With three weeks left in the regular season, playoff spots are still up for grabs, and one upset can lead to a ferocious shakeup of the playoff picture.
Before last week, the mighty Soldotna Stars had yet to face a conference opponent, which meant Kenai Central and Kodiak were leading the Northern Lights Conference, important because only the top two teams move on to the postseason.
All Northern Lights teams play three conference games this year, and after topping Kodiak on Saturday, SoHi finally put itself atop the conference standings. It is looking increasingly likely that in order to gain a postseason spot, an NLC team will have to tally two conference wins, and Kodiak is already sitting in the “red zone” with a 1-2 conference mark, the final record for the Bears.
The Kenai varsity team is off this weekend with a bye, but the JV squad is traveling up north to take on independent team Houston under the Friday night lights. It leaves all the attention on Saturday’s matchup between SoHi and Homer that should help clear up the conference picture.
Soldotna (4-0) at Homer (2-3), 2 p.m. Saturday
The Stars are facing a big game Saturday. If they win, SoHi clinches a medium-schools playoff berth for a ninth consecutive year.
It would also add to Soldotna’s winning streak, which is currently at 24 straight wins, dating back to August 2012. If the Stars can keep it up, they have a chance to tie the school record of 29 games in the medium-schools championship on October 18. But of course, that’s if they get there, and coach Galen Brantley Jr. is never one to look past an opponent.
“You know, you never wanna overlook anybody,” Brantley Jr. said. “Homer hasn’t had the season they wanted but they’ve lost some close games, so we never disrespect what they’ve done.”
After beating Kodiak 48-0 to win their first Northern Lights Conference game of 2014, the Stars are still looking for a balanced team on both sides of the ball. Brantley Jr. was most pleased with the defensive stranglehold his team held on Kodiak last weekend. The Bears only managed 43 yards of offense all day, while the Stars rolled with 470 offensive yards.
Considering the level of domination Soldotna has shown this year, it’s a daunting thought that improvements are on the way.
“Offensively, we’re still not as sharp as we wanted to be,” Brantley Jr. said. “We dropped a couple of balls, had some turnovers.”
Nevertheless, senior fullback Jared Chavez came in as a backup and proceeded to rack up 166 offensive yards and four touchdowns, two rushing and two receiving. Chavez played in place of senior Ty Fenton, who rolled his ankle early in the game and is listed as a gametime decision, according to Brantley Jr.
Brantley Jr. also mentioned the defensive play of senior Drew Fowler, who has six solo tackles and three assists against Kodiak.
It was the most recent addition to a 2014 SoHi defense that has been stellar. Consider this: the Stars have given up exactly one scoring play in four games this year, and even those six points — a 58-yard touchdown run by Eagle River in week 1 — were due to a few missed tackles by SoHi.
“It’s kind of happened on its own,” Brantley Jr. said of the team’s defense. “We certainly did not set out to shut everybody up, we pride ourselves on getting our younger kids in the game.”
Brantley Jr. pointed out the defensive stop that his second-string players put up against Palmer in week 2 that preserved the shutout, and said much of that defensive stinginess is credited to defensive coordinator Eric Pomerleau, former head coach at Skyview High.
Brantley Jr. and Pomerleau are former football teammates at Valley City State University in North Dakota, so the familiarity on the football field goes further than the head-to-head coaching battles the two have had against each other in the past decade.
“Eric’s done a fantastic job coming in, I just couldn’t be happier with the transition,” Brantley Jr. said. “He’s come in with head coach experience and has just done a nice job with the kids.”
For the Mariners, things are looking grim. After dropping its first NLC contest of the year to Kodiak last Saturday, Homer needs at least one conference win to stay alive in the playoff race, and with games against SoHi and Kenai in the next two weeks, the stakes are high, but coach Josh Fraley said if any team can make a run at the Stars, it is his.
“We gotta win them both,” Fraley said. “We’ve put that in their heads, and we don’t want to put pressure on them, but it’s there.
“Last week we didn’t really have a good Friday practice and it showed in the game. This week has been better.”
After holding an early 14-0 lead against Ketchikan last Saturday, Homer lost it with 23 straight points given up that resulted in a two-score lead for the Kings. Even with a late touchdown drive, Homer still lost 23-22.
“We turned the ball over a couple times, once deep in our zone, and they scored on our mistakes,” Fraley said. “We also didn’t tackle well, and that’s usually our strength.”
With all focus now turned on trying to beat SoHi, Fraley said the defense has got to stop the SoHi run game, and that starts with stopping the short gains.
“We gotta stop the dive,” Fraley said. “Once we stop that, we can make them throw the ball a bit.”
Both coaches exhibit similar mindsets in preparing for Saturday’s game: Stop the run game and force the opposition into a one-dimensional offense.
Homer and SoHi feature multi-faceted quarterbacks that can take the ball and run for yardage, but can also catch a defense off guard with a passing attack. For SoHi, Brooks Furlong has shown a dual threat all year long with 421 passing yards and nine touchdowns, while keeping the ball 25 times in the ground game.
For Homer, 6-foot-5 Sheldon Hutt has thrown for 174 yards and two touchdowns in 2014 while carrying the ball 46 times for 141 yards.
It is all a part of a change in identity that Fraley said he is working on with the Homer offense, going from a passing team in 2013 to a run-based offense this season.
“We worked on that hard this week, because we want to throw the ball on SoHi,” Fraley said. “You always sacrifice size and speed to have a versatile passing game.”
Voznesenka (0-4) at Nikiski (3-1), 2 p.m. Saturday
Last Saturday’s 50-0 win over Valdez helped put Nikiski back on track, a week removed from a 52-34 loss to Greatland Conference rival Eielson, a loss that included Eielson senior Anthony Griffith becoming the first player in the state to eclipse 500 rushing yards in a single game.
After a week of assessing game film and seeing what went wrong, Nikiski coach Ted Riddall was happy with the on-field play he saw against the Buccaneers.
“We saw a lot of good things in the way of blocking, sustaining blocks, blocking to the whistle,” Riddall said. “We worked pretty hard … We took a step in the right direction, and that was the number one goal.”
Riddall’s son, Christian, leads the Nikiski offense this year with 566 offensive yards, most of that coming on the ground. Saturday against Valdez, Riddall amassed 246 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
On defense, the Bulldogs have maintained a fierce pass rush, and it wasn’t more evident Saturday when linebacker Luke Johnson grabbed a pick-six of Valdez quarterback Colbin Hansen for a 30-yard score on the third play of the game.
Riddall said that the position Nikiski holds in the Greatland Conference standings — third place — is good for now, but would like to be a little higher up by the end of the season.
“Obviously Eielson has that track for the number one spot, unless they get beaten,” Riddall said. “For us, we’re just looking at the opportunity for a home playoff game.”
To host a home game in the postseason, the Bulldogs need to finish among the top two in the conference. Current runner-up Barrow holds a 3-1 record in the Greatland Conference, while Nikiski is at 2-1, but with Barrow also has two losses in the overall standings, while Nikiski has one.
“I feel pretty good at progressing, as long as we continue to progress that way,” Riddall said.
Voznesenka is still winless, but a 26-14 loss to Monroe Catholic last Saturday looked a lot better than the previous three blowouts.
“It looks a lot better, but I thought we shot ourselves in the foot in that game,” said Voznesenka coach Justin Zank. “We had so many opportunities in that game, and like our other games, we just had so many key mistakes.”
Zank said mistakes such as lining up correctly on the line of scrimmage and movement in the backfield kept the Cougars from threatening to win the game. Voz even had a touchdown brought back due to the receiver going into motion at the last moment before the ball was snapped.
But Zank said he was happy that his offense was able to move the ball effectively, something they will need to do Saturday against Nikiski. That will not be easy going against bruising linebackers like Luke Johnson and running backs like Christian Riddall. Voznesenka features a significantly smaller team. Zank said tight end Max Kuzmin weighs in at about 200 pounds, making him the biggest player on the team.
“With my younger guys, it’s hard to stick to their assignments, they tend to overpursue and wanna follow the ball,” Zank said. “I told them they just need to take care of their individual jobs.”
Coach Riddall said the focus this week is the same as always — work hard and improve on the fundamentals, and with a conference matchup on the line, don’t overlook the Cougars.
“We have to approach it like they’re young and learning quite a bit,” Riddall said. “But they have scrappy kids. They hit hard and go hard from the whistle. Our kids will have to be aware they want to win the game just as much as we have to.”
Seward (3-2) at Valdez (1-4), 2 p.m. Saturday
A surprising 3-2 start to the season has the Seahawks on the brink of a playoff spot with three games to go. The Seahawks currently hold the fourth and final playoff spot in the Greatland Conference with a 2-1 mark, and a matchup against a small, struggling Valdez squad may push Seward over to the list of favorites to make the postseason.
Nikiski coach Ted Riddall weighed in on his opinion of the Bulldogs’ rival to the southeast, adding that it is a good thing when new teams enter the playoff picture on a yearly basis.
“I think Seward is a big deal, they’re playing better than they have in the past,” Riddall said. “They always play us tough, and we’re playing them in a few weeks, so I think in the end it comes down to which team is consistent enough and plays hardest.”
After being shut out by Nikiski last week, Valdez will be looking to get back into the playoff picture. The Bucs currently hold a 1-2 conference mark, which means a win over Seward would leave the two schools tied for fourth in the standings.